A Very Bad Argument Against Capital Punishment

As an aside in an otherwise unrelated talk, I heard a priest say the other day, “How can there be any logic in capital punishment? How can you teach people to respect life by threatening to kill them?”

Regardless of what one thinks about the legitimacy of capital punishment, this is a bad argument. Throughout history, legitimate authority has used the threat of legally sanctioned violence (punishment) to prevent people from committing crimes, and it does indeed work pretty well. Not only that, but there’s an example from everyday life that most people have direct experience with: Telling young children that biting, kicking, scratching, hair pulling, kicking, hitting and any other physical attacks I haven’t thought of at the moment will be met with a spanking actually works very well. Indeed, at the ages of 3-8 when children are capable of more-or-less controlling their actions but have very limited ability to empathize with others (especially others who are making them angry) it’s often pretty much the only effective manner of preventing intra-sibling fights getting nasty.

And contrary to the similar claim that “you can’t teach someone not to hit by threatening to hit them”, many of us in fact learned that hitting was not an acceptable means of self expression by this very means, and in turn have taught our offspring the same way.

Like it or not, we experience codified punishments handed down by a recognized authority as different from ad hoc violence used to vent one’s personal feelings of the moment. And while threat of punishment alone will not serve to make people actually value life or eschew violence, it is pretty effective at preventing the proscribed behavior.

Other arguments against capital punishment (whether practical or moral) are compelling to one extent or another, but this one should honestly be dropped. It just doesn’t ring true.

22 Responses to A Very Bad Argument Against Capital Punishment

  1. e. says:

    “How can you teach people to respect life by threatening to kill them?”

    It is widely assumed that whenever the death penalty is under discussion, that if any theological considerations are to be invoked at all, these will weigh against it. “Surely, mercy is to be favored” is often the prevailing thought. However, the situation is much more complicated than that.

    In my own view, the underlying principle of retributive justice needs to be explained, especially since nowadays it’s largely misconceived.

    By retributive justice, I don’t mean the animalistic indulgence, impersonal spite, or maliciousness against an offender.

    Rather), there are important social values (i.e., the RIGHT TO LIFE) which MUST BE UPHELD for the sake of an orderly society and that those who affront these values by their violent behaviour must be called to account for their actions by proportionate punishment.

    For instance, in the case of someone who deliberately takes a life, our willingness to impose the death penalty is our testimony to how seriously we take the value against which he has offended.

    There is nothing brutal in treating a person as a responsible agent who can be held accountable for his acts and requiring he sustain the burden proportionate to the burden he has wrongly inflicted against others.

    Quite the contrary, what is brutalizing and dehumanizing (pace DarwinCatholic) is to overthrow our principle of retributive justice and, in effect, TREAT THE CRIMINAL AS LESS THAN A RESPONSIBLE AGENT — as some sort of behavioral animal who’s not really responsible and culpable for his crimes, who has to be treated and cured but not punishment.

    Finally, we can’t have a concept of mercy if we don’t have a principle of retributive justice to begin with.

    There first has to be an understanding that these offences demand such punishment and once we have a principle like this in place, then there can be mercy on the part of a governor or whoever can relax the strict requirements of Justice in an individual case.

    But if we try to codify the notion of mercy without a sense of retributive justice in the first place, we don’t have mercy — we have SENTIMENTALITY!

    Catholics should note that the previous Holy Father, John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae looked at the situation in terms of modern social conditions and judged, in his personal opinion, that the conditions under which Capital Punishment should be used would be quite rare. Yet, he didn’t eliminate it all together.

    Moreover, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, issued a memorandum subsequent to EV in which he pointed out that presumably because of the ambiguities that surround this question, there can be a legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics regarding when Capital Punishment should be used. Note that he expressly did not state that he was against it.

  2. Paul Zummo says:

    For instance, in the case of someone who deliberately takes a life, our willingness to impose the death penalty is our testimony to how seriously we take the value against which he has offended.

    Even though I am opposed to the death penalty, I think that the point above is a very astute one, especially against those who make the argument that the death penalty debases human life.

    It’s funny, but I generally find many if not most of the arguments against the death penalty to be pretty bad. That said, the ultimate argument against it – that it’s simply immoral (if not prohibited by the Church) still is ultimately persuasive to me.

  3. e. says:

    If the death penalty is so immoral, then what kind of God exactly do we Christians believe in?

    Let me remind you that it was God Himself who commanded that murderers be executed.

    In Genesis 9: 5-6, God commanded Noah and his descendants to execute murderers.


    Because murder is the ultimate violation of the divine image in humanity, and killing the perpetrator is the only proportional punishment!

    The rest of the Torah reinforces that command, and the New Testament doesn’t countermand it.

    Indeed, even Sister Helen Prejean herself admitted as much in her book, Dead Man Walking, when discussing Jesus and the adulteress in John 8:

    “It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) – the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context.

    “This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment.”

  4. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I assume that the priest is perhaps unfamiliar with the copious portions of the Old Testament that call for death for numerous offenses. The current stance against the death penalty turns Church teaching on this issue on its head for the past two millenia. Both the State and the Church held throughout that time period that the death penalty could be justly exacted by the State.

    The Baltimore Catechism well set forth the traditional teaching:

    “Q. 1276. Under what circumstances may human life be lawfully taken?

    A. Human life may be lawfully taken:
    1. In self-defense, when we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives;
    2. In a just war, when the safety or rights of the nation require it;
    3. By the lawful execution of a criminal, fairly tried and found guilty of a crime punishable by death when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution.”


    If people of a state wish to abolish the death penalty, frankly that is a issue that doesn’t move me one way or the other. I am mildly in favor of the death penalty in extreme cases but it is not a hot button issue for me. However religious arguments from a Catholic perspective I find difficult to take seriously considering the vast amount of Catholic teaching to the contrary until the pontificate of John Paul II. I find it impossible to believe that the Church was mistaken on this issue for almost 2000 years.

  5. A side note, but: Pulling examples of Catholic moral teaching, the priest focused a lot on both abortion and capital punishment (which he presented as absolutely forbidden). I think many priests who feel worried that they’ll be cast as too political by talking about abortion seek to balance it by condemning capital punishment equally — feeling that this shows how they aren’t partisan.

  6. Joe Hargrave says:

    Even though capital punishment in today’s circumstances may be wrong, I think it is also wrong to try and say it and abortion are issues of equal importance. Abortion claims millions of lives every year, ruins entire nations (look at Russia!), destroys families, places souls in jeopardy… it is a scourge on all society. On our list of priorities, abortion has to come before capital punishment.

    I also can’t get too enthusiastic about trying to save the lives of cold-blooded murderers and rapists. As a Catholic, I will assent to the teaching of the Church, but as a human being, I won’t deny that I have a desire to punish violent crime so severely that others will be terrified to undertake it.

    I’ll also add, though, that I think no one should EVER go to prison for possession of drugs, that we have FAR too many laws, obscure, arcane, hidden laws that sometimes trap people unjustly. The punishment has to fit the crime, and in our society, the punishment is too light for the worst criminals, and too harsh for the vast majority. Our priorities are entirely out of order.

  7. Mack says:

    Generally speaking I’m against the death penalty, but I definitely make an exception for whoever invented television reality shows.

  8. foxfier says:

    *shrug* It’s from the same school of argument that claims making war for peace doesn’t make sense, or that “F*ing for virginity” doesn’t make sense.

    (Hint: both of those most reliably result in peace and virgins, respectively….)

    If everyone that commits premeditated homicide were exicuted, they wouldn’t commit another murder and thus the number of murders would go down.

    Natch, how effective something is doesn’t argue for or against the morality of the action….

  9. e. says:


    Were you by any chance intoxicated when you wrote the above? ;^)

    I’ve heard “Make Love, Not War”, but what exactly does “F*ing for virginity” mean?

    That’s the first time I’ve ever encountered such an expression.

  10. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Run a google search e. It is ubiquitous on the Left, and Foxfier cleverly demonstrated what an inane phrase it is.

  11. foxfier says:

    Lucky you, e– there’s (bleeped and unbleeped) bumper stickers of it all over. Usually the full phrase is “Making war for peace is like (making love) for virginity.”

    Was quoted at me in high school– I think it’s from the 60s?– and the other teens weren’t impressed when I pointed out that it would result in a net gain of virgins…. But I fear I’m derailing the topic; just meant to point out the school of thought.

  12. e. says:

    Where I’m at, I’ve never encountered such bumper stickers.

    Although, I’ve quite recently encountered license plates that, for some reason or another, carry the insignia “War of Warcraft”, which seems particularly odd for me, personally; I mean, isn’t this some sort of video game?

    As far as the death penalty is concerned, I am still of the opinion that not only is it a categorical imperative (in the Kantian sense) but also a moral one if anything, especially if we are to give any sort credence whatsoever to Holy Writ.

    Furthermore, there is also the fact that much of the criminal elements in prisons are quite encouraged by the fact that in place of any such death penalty, the worst they can suffer are multiple life sentences; hence, we’ve virtually bestowed upon these a “license to kill”, so-to-speak.

    The degree to which we deem the value of life itself is illustrated quite nicely these days by a society that hardly thinks the taking of life deserves nothing more than merely time away in prison!

    How very apt as such values are much in keeping with the Culture of Death!

    Obama is indeed a worthy recipient of the Noble Peace Prize given the kind of society that exists today where its very values are so warped.

  13. foxfier says:

    Although, I’ve quite recently encountered license plates that, for some reason or another, carry the insignia “War of Warcraft”, which seems particularly odd for me, personally; I mean, isn’t this some sort of video game?

    *big grin* Yes, yes it is– one with a really good sense of humor. I’d be delighted to have more Warcraft stickers instead of political ones….Given my luck, I’ll just end up with political Warcraft ones. (Palin is <a href="http://www.wowwiki.com/Varimathras"Varimathras! Warlocks pwn as Demo-crat!”)

  14. e. says:

    Actually, the one I encountered wasn’t a bumper sticker; it was a license plate.

    I know they make custom plates for certain causes (e.g., “Save the Whales”, etc.); but I take it that the prominence of this particular video game is such that it too became deserving of the honor of becoming a custom plate as well?

    Curious, your link didn’t turn up (maybe due to the html coding); but were you actually indicating that Palin also plays this video game?

    If anybody could provide an incentive for folks to play that video game, it’d be a hot babe like her! *wink*

  15. foxfier says:

    Oh, nice— guessing that it’s one of those states that lets most anything be made into a plate, then.

    Heh, I did mess up the HTML– tried to remove the Palin example, ended up only removing the closing tag. (figure less is more when it’s an in-joke)

    I’m pretty sure Palin doesn’t play WoW– although her kids might, especially that son in the military. (Amazing number of military folks in online games- pay 12 bucks a month for subscription and you can visit friends any time you’ve got an internet connection. Plus, the game and a six pack are a pretty good evening on the cheap.)

  16. Gabriel Austin says:

    Lamartine wrote of the abolition of the death penalty: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent”.

    It seems to me that many Catholic commentators overlook the fact that death is not a final end. You can get run over any day.

    I am reminded of the prisoner on death row who was seated on the metal seat of his toilet, while fiddling with his radio, and managed to electrocute himself.

    The question should be about the effect on the society that uses the death penalty, not on the person executed.

  17. e. says:

    No, what people need to realize is the total disregard for life that our society has (and, in particular, Catholics themselves), such that the deliberate taking of a life is deemed as petty as a lesser offence wherein we practically impose upon murderers penalties equal to those of the latter!

  18. foxfier says:

    I can’t say I’d agree that being dead is less about the dead person than what it does to society…by that reasoning, murderers should get off easier if they kill folks whose death ends up being a net gain, and that’s rather nuts.

    Based on the fact that those places where they don’t use the death penalty, the folks who murder tend to get off (Only chart I can find fast– average of 10 years served for murderers) rather lightly, and with rather high recidivism {35% here, although location etc will matter.} it’s not so good an idea….

  19. foxfier says:

    I just have no luck with HTML today….

  20. restrainedradical says:

    Doctrine develops. Times change. JP2 didn’t reverse anything. The state may execute. But in modern America, it is unnecessary. Completely compatible with the Baltimore Catechism which states that it’s acceptable “when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution.”

    As for the “bad argument,” I don’t find it bad at all. When less drastic measures are sufficient, preserving life is a great testiment to how much society values it.

  21. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Development of Doctrine a la Newman is one thing restrained radical, reversal is another. I defy anyone to say with a straight face that John Paul II did not intend to abolish the death penalty. This stands traditional teaching in this area on its head. One of the great strengths of the Church is how heedless it has been over great gulfs of time to the momentary shifts in popular intellectual prejudices and emotional passions that sweep over almost all other human institutions. The mainline Protestant denominations are dying proofs of what happens to religious organizations that shift Church teaching to embrace the zeitgeist.

  22. e. says:

    …preserving life is a great testament to how much society values it.

    Imposing criminal penalties on murderers that are equivalent to those of even lesser offenses is sheer testament of how trivial this society deems murder to be — but, hey, that’s not all that surprising given how abortion (which is nothing more than murder) is also treated so casually and how facets of the Culture of Death itself is promoted quite enthusiastically by even certain Catholics that they would deliberately ignore Scripture itself concerning these two things.

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